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Langley council to revisit subdivision moratorium

Langley’s nearly three-year-long moratorium on new subdivisions may come to an end next week.

Or maybe it won’t.

The ban, adopted in 2007 and extended three times, will expire on Wednesday, April 7. The city council can extend it again, but may be reluctant to do so on advice from city attorneys.

“We’re making no firm recommendation,” city planning director Larry Cort said Thursday, speaking for the planning staff, which had all but promised that the latest extension would be the last.

“If the council still feels there’s a reason to extend, then obviously they have that authority,” Cort said.

The ban against subdividing land was first approved in June 2007 for one year, then extended in June 2008, in December 2008 and again in December 2009.

It prohibits new subdivisions in the city’s RS-7,200 and RS-15,000 zoning districts, the areas of town where medium- and low-density housing development is allowed.

Mainly affected are properties in the areas of Al Anderson Avenue, Edgecliff and Saratoga Road.

The moratorium has been intertwined with a revision of the city’s subdivision code to reflect Langley’s updated comprehensive plan, which will guide the city’s growth through the next two decades. The updated package covers not only zoning changes, but also regulations on housing design and location, lot sizes, street widths and even such things such as the use of clotheslines and the location of mailboxes.

City officials had hoped the new regulations would be in place before the moratorium is lifted.

However, according to the city’s attorneys, while a “reasonable” extension of such a moratorium is permitted by law, “the courts will apply the reasonableness test with greater scrutiny and skepticism the longer a moratorium is extended.”

“If the duration of a moratorium is arguably unreasonable,” attorneys Grant Weed and Craig Knutson wrote in a recent e-mail to Mayor Paul Samuelson, “the city could be sued in either state or federal court and could be held liable for damages.”

“We would caution the city against extending the moratorium any longer unless it has a strong justification for doing so,” they concluded.

The city council will tackle the moratorium at its next meeting, 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 5, at city hall on Second Street. A public council workshop will be at 3 p.m.

A draft of the proposed subdivision changes was submitted to the city council on March 10 by the city’s volunteer Planning Advisory Board.

“I feel the PAB and planning department have done a lot of good work in getting the draft to us,” City Councilman Robert Gilman said Thursday. “But there’s likely to still be a fair amount of work the council will do on it.”

Gilman said that if a gap comes to exist between the lifting of the moratorium and the adoption of new subdivision regulations, the subdivision rules would revert to what existed before the moratorium was put into place.

“A big piece of policy work is needed by the council, which we will do and are doing,” Gilman said of the proposed changes.

The PAB recommendations aren’t on Monday’s council agenda, but they may come up during a council subcommittee report on planning, Cort said.

Gilman, a member of the subcommittee along with City Councilman Bob Waterman, has been working closely with planners and the PAB to come up with new subdivision regulations.

Gilman said two public hearings on the subdivision rules were conducted by the PAB, but the city council could conduct further hearings if it chooses.

Gilman has been pushing a bottoms-up “neighborhood” approach to each residential zone, so the city could be certain that questions of natural attributes, an area’s existing build character and its social aspects would all be addressed.

However, some of the suggested changes — such as an increased set-aside of undeveloped open space, design rules and other restrictions — have drawn criticism from several area builders, who say such restrictions will increase the price of houses.

Other critics say that Gilman and his supporters are trying to social-engineer an “eco-village” for the many at the expense of the few.

“That’s just nonsense, basically,” Gilman said.

“I would prefer something where we’re supportive of a variety of options, rather than using too much of the same style,” he said. “I feel the initial PAB draft and its council draft are more restrictive than is my preference.”

Gilman said that whatever happens, the new subdivision code must be consistent with the updated comprehensive plan.

“At this point, my view is, it isn’t,” he said.

As for an increase in set-aside open space, a major provision in the new parks and open space component recently adopted by the city council as an update to the comprehensive plan, Gilman said:

“Everyone agrees that open space is important to Langley’s character and quality of life. The overall question is the percentage. Nobody’s talking zero open space — it’s finding the right balance.”

And as for creating an “eco-village”?

“It’s amazing what people make up,” Gilman said. “I’m flat-out not trying to do that. I’m just trying to do my part to make Langley a wonderful place to live.”

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